The Never-Ending Website

In the world of digital agencies, and institutions who manage large websites, we all know the routine. For one moment in time the website is shiny and new, everyone loves it, and analytics are an exciting present to unwrap every morning. Finally, the world can see your company or organization or agency for what it truly is — pure digital amazingness.

Fast forward a few months. Other fires have popped up and attention is waning. A few “just do it”s have created cracks in the nice new exterior, and you see that aging content that was once fresh and sparkly getting a little dull, as the days and weeks creep on. That’s just the way things go.

Fast forward a few more years and things have gotten dramatically worse.

It’s like a Mad Max movie throughout your digital ecosystem and let’s face it, everyone’s just scared to look anymore.

Sure, Dan from the library thinks everything is great, or Maria in the CEO seat is happy the numbers are holding, so what could possibly be wrong? But everyone else is knee-deep in outdated, unorganized, unappealing, redundant, buggy, website goo.

Eventually an email arrives in someone important’s inbox exclaiming — “Good grief your website is horrible!” Maybe the email arrives at the exact same time some numbers tank and some other alarms are going off, and the decision is made. REDESIGN THE WEBSITE! Horns blow, horses gallop off, and forces organize to destroy that which was once precious so you start over again. On the same. Exact. Path.

You think to yourself that this time you’ll do some research. You’ll get some of that fancy content strategy you’ve been reading about. You’ll even staff up to support it this time.

But in reality, you’re not even talking about how to avoid the next descent into eventual chaos, and the day the outside world once again lays eyes upon your “doorway to the world” and thinks “WTF.”

Not the marketing message most of us are going for.

There are a few companies and organizations who seem to have mostly avoided the need to radically change their websites. And yes, change is hard for humans — but that isn’t the reason these sites have remained relatively unchanged. I propose these companies planned for a longer term structure early on — and we should be doing the same thing in the sites we build for our clients. We only pursue radical and disruptive change when the status quo is absolutely untenable. That is not good planning my friends. That is stupid.

So how do we create a plan to avoid the need for radical change?

Let’s look at the evolution of a few very well-known digital properties. Apple.com and NYTimes.com. Two very different companies, who have maintained a fairly consistent online presence over the past 10+ years. For the sake of brevity, we are only looking at the evolution of the home pages and main navigation systems.

Let’s start by looking at Apple’s website evolution.

Below we have four screen shots from apple.com — from one of the earliest iterations in 1996, to a 1998 version where they went big on image and lowered the main nav, to 2000 / 2001 when the top navigation appears and begins to establish a framework that is arguably the most usable.

Jumping ahead to 2005, we can see that a few things change over the next four years. In 2007 there is a larger shift, but look closely at what changes. Not a lot. The site is actually simplified, with fewer navigation options and less content on the home page. One could argue this was in part due to the release of the iPhone, but several structural changes remain consistent as we move forward.

In 2009, Apple reclaims more homepage real estate for a variety of content. In 2011, they make a slight shift to the color of the main navigation bar and search field. You will also notice that since 2005, they’ve dropped the giant APPLE logo and rely only on their visual symbol to identify the company and act as a nav anchor back to the home page. This signals the company’s confidence that everyone knows what that symbol means, and frees up more space to focus on their products.

Next we get to 2013, 2014, and guess what — little is changing.

You know what is changing all the time? Their CONTENT!

The visual position and design of the navigation are still working, though slight changes in the categories have occurred. They have consistently presented a hero feature, with smaller feature stories resting below.

Heading into 2015 and 2016 we begin to see more refinement happen with the navigation design, as well as the entire site taking on the role of “Store” — thus the navigation item that used to be first goes away completely. The feature remains the same, as does the supporting secondary features. Apple has introduced a carousel, which allows for more content, although we’ve all read the studies about carousels. Maybe Apple knows something we don’t?

What is most interesting to me is what didn’t change over the course of 16 years on the apple.com website.

Apple is a company who makes beautiful products, and sells the idea of “thinking differently.” They managed to stay true to their brand and core values, with very little fussing over the website. They also applied their focus on simplicity and a pleasurable user experience to the site by using a streamlined and simple navigation system, and relying on large beautiful images and video to supply the content. Over the years the text decreased in general on the home page, even losing headlines above smaller content areas, while imagery, video and bold beautiful typography took center stage.

It’s a “less is more” approach, and it has worked very well for Apple, for a very long time.

Next let’s look at the New York Times.

This is a very different company, and a very different set of needs for the website. The two screen shots below cover five years, from the earliest online version of the NYT, to Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorists attacked. Many of us recall being glued to the internet for our information and updates. As you can see, the entire front page is dedicated to the news surrounding those events.

Next we have 2005 and 2008. The masthead has remained the same, and the left side navigation has remained a ubiquitous element in the layout. Advertising now takes up more real estate, which may be a signal that the company is trying to find ways to monetize itself. They are also changing their headlines and making adjustments to how copy is emphasized, and how typography is being used.

2008 sees a new top page tab system which introduces new opportunities to consume the content, as well as a more visible presence for the “Log In” and “Register Now” links. There is an adjustment to the columns and placement, which might be in part to the increasing screen sizes for most users.

However, overall, the feeling of the design remains relatively unchanged.

Here we see versions from 2010 and 2012. Top tabs and the left side nav remain, but advertising spots have been introduced in the masthead. There is still tweaking around placement and treatment for category headers and we see video, social and comments become a more visible presence in the designs. However, once again, I’d say the overall feeling is intact.

And below we have 2014 and 2016. This is where we finally see a more substantial shift to the overall design, about 13 years later! Across the top “Register” has changed to “Subscribe Now,” and links have been highlighted.

A “hamburger nav” has replaced the top tabs and search has gotten much smaller, while the masthead has remained the same with the brand placement and advertising slots on either side. The most noticeable changes are those to the navigation. The left side is now dedicated to content, the tabbed topic links sit below as a horizontal set of links, and the rest of all that nav has been tucked up into the hamburger icon and “Sections” link — which produces a rather large drop down nav with rollout secondary and tertiary navigation. While some may find it cumbersome to use, the increased dedication to content allows the overall design to be much more aesthetically pleasing, and, easier to scan and read.

You will also notice a steadily increasing amount of “white space” in the NYT’s website as it has evolved.

There’s enough data now to fully support the need for “white space” in digital product design, so the NYT designers are winning the battle against “putting it all on the home page,” or the dreaded “above the fold.”

Again, we see a very prominent brand, and a very popular website, make incremental shifts to its presentation rather than giant bold redesigns where everything changes.

The New York Times managed to set up a structure and approach that allowed them to evolve rather than redesign.

And with the increasing need to be in so many different places online (website, apps, social, sub-brands, etc.) who has time to focus on a redesign every few years? Think of all the other online properties and products under the brand that would need to also be updated or changed to suit the large dramatic redesign? It’s simply not possible for the New York Times, and this gradual evolution probably saved them tons of money in the long run.

Both of these sites are counting on customer loyalty and commitment. A complete redesign would require them to reestablish relationships and “teach” their visitors to use the sites all over again. That would be very disruptive to Apple, the NYT, or most organizations. We know that life events which cause the most change (a death in the family, divorce, relocation, getting fired) cause the most stress for humans, so why would we put them through that on our websites if we didn’t need to?

What I’m suggesting is that we are not looking far enough down the road when we redesign complex sites, nor are we giving enough consideration to content needs.

Flexibility and appreciation for the user experience can go hand-in-hand, and they need to. Radical redesigns are disruptive to users coming to a site who expected what they knew. Radical redesigns only work well for completely new users, users who have never visited the site before. And if you think about it, these users don’t even know it’s a redesign — for all they know, it’s been like that since 2005.

As long as the tweaks and changes have been made in support of user experience and content strategy, the user will be happy. As long as updates have been applied to ensure a modern experience that reflects a care and consideration for the user’s experience, they won’t care that the site may have looked the same for a long time. If the stories are good, if the content is useful, if the experience is intuitive, fast, and pleasurable — they will leave with a positive impression and happily return to your website.

I hope that by walking through these two examples, I can give you more ammo in your fight to embark on the next redesign in the smartest possible way. Trust me, if radical redesigns could make Apple more money, or get NYT more subscribers and advertisers, they would have done it. Other companies you can look to for slow evolutionary change vs. radical shifts are Facebook, Amazon and Google.

Let’s stop throwing away the baby with the bathwater, and start planning for a better bathwater system. Let’s start planning for a site that doesn’t need to be thrown out in five years. If we have that conversation up front, and make that a primary goal — every decision afterwards will be different, and better.

Want to read more about extending the life of your website? Check out my follow-up post here.

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